“Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, then step back.Lao Tzu
The only path to serenity.”
When it comes to difficult tasks, that are necessary to do, and seldom enjoyable, we have to contend with the reality of burnout – that, despite our best efforts, we may come to a point of total exhaustion, where we either have nothing more to give, or we become so numb and disenchanted with our chosen path, that we continue to work, but without relish, love, and passion.
Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill.
When you multi-task, work on several projects at once, or work so long on the same project without a break, your mind will cease to function optimally, you will begin to make silly mistakes, and paradoxically, spend more time than necessary, to undo your own errors.
How do we find the right balance? How do we transcend these psychological limitations? Use timers like Pomodoro, to force yourself to stop filling your proverbial bowl. In Behavioral Economics, the idea of decision points is useful. When you design intentional pauses while you work, you provide your brain with a necessary break, which will keep it functioning at a higher capacity. The paradox here is in reverse. Take more breaks, become more efficient.
Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt.
To sharpen your knife means to practice a skill. In other words, to perform an activity for the sole sake of improving in the activity. The theme of the entire quote, including this sentence, is that there can bee too much of a good thing. Whether it’s greed, ambition, people’s approval, or practice, there is virtue in balance. Anything pushed to an extreme will become harmful. Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean comes to mind. He thought that moral behavior is the mean between two extremes (deficiency and excess). If you are too fearful, you are a coward. If you are too brave, you are reckless.
Care about people’s approval and you will be their prisoner.
It is difficult, in any pursuit, to not care what others think. It is not only selfish, but counterproductive. If you want to improve at anything, you need consistent and high quality feedback. A better idea would be to avoid the obsessive, blind chase after an object – whether money or fame or prestige – out of a compulsive desire to win the adulation or approval or others.
Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench.
The nucleus accumbens in our brain has been compared to a gas pedal, when after given a direction, one way or another, will push us to accelerate our pursuit of our goal. But this turbo function, while crucial for near death situations, is not a sustainable way to live. That is one point that Lao Tzu is making. Get the turbo-crazed part of your brain under control, you don’t need to keep running frantically towards your object. When you care too much what other people think, it is hard to resist such a temptation. A measured level of detachment is necessary to become more in control of the speed at which you pursue your goals.
There is another idea here, and that is the warning against the “chase.”
Whatever you are seeking, business success, relationship success, personal or spiritual fulfilment – the important thing is to not chase after them. Why not? Because whenever you chase after anything, it becomes your sole focus, and you block everything else out.
Dostoevsky was one of the greatest novelists who ever lived. Right after writing his final book, The Brothers Karamazov, he gambled away all of his money, his wife’s money, and her brother’s money. After his wife had sent him more money to buy a ticket home, he gambled it away too. Dostoevsky was not only an obsessive writer, he was an obsessive gambler, and an obsessive individual.
To be able to write the books that he did, he must have had an intense ability to focus, and to narrow down reality to whatever task lie in front of him, but this quality applies across different pursuits. If he is capable of blocking out reality when writing his books, then he is capable of doing the same when he is gambling away all the money that comes his way, without considering the consequences.
Being blinded by an external goal is not only harmful because it makes you oblivious to other things, but it could even stop you from reaching the one goal you have chosen to chase after. In a Mind for Numbers, we learn about how the brain learns – focused and diffused thinking. Focused thinking is necessary to process linear problems, such as solving a mathematical problem, or calculating the total cost of your trip to Europe. But diffuse thinking is necessary for creative insight. If you want to solve a problem, that requires you to think “outside the box”, you need to take a step back, and allow your unconscious mind to make disparate connections.
If you want to achieve something, chasing after it may push it further away, in the same way that working too hard, without managing your energy can prevent you from producing higher quality work.
Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.
This Stoic sentiment is akin to the Serenity prayer. It may not be a coincidence that the word “serenity” is repeated.
It is commonly quoted as: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.